She could be anyone, so you get close to see her. The fiery monotone background does not steal away from her mystery and, in fact, recedes as your gaze fixates on her. She looks like a rag doll dressed up hastily by her child-mother and abandoned carelessly on a chair quickly afterwards, slouching under the pull of gravity. The shoulders slump, the lower lip descends into a pout. Her highly ornate tunic and flapper’s bob haircut do nothing to alleviate the sense of helplessness pervading this portrait. They actually come across as an irony or a cruel joke, because beyond all pretenses, this otherwise fashionable young woman is, in fact, a helpless little girl.
And then the title — The Exile: Heavy is the Price I Paid for Love — strikes you as overly lyrical and evocative, as if straight out of a poem or ballad sung by candlelight, and gosh, you must find out more about her. Where did she come from? What’s her story? Was she swept up by historical events or did she shape her misery with the chisel of free will? The latter version is far more romantic, yet we know by now that historical context cannot be escaped.
When word got out that the Italian government would soon shut down Lombardy, its northern region, on March 8, 2020, in order to control its coronavirus outbreak, in just a matter of hours masses of people rushed to escape the upcoming lockdown, most of them retreating south. Once they got there they were not precisely welcome, to put it mildly. They were seen as threats, as carriers of disease, as rule-breakers that couldn’t and shouldn’t be trusted. The situation deteriorated so quickly that within two days the whole country was under lockdown, so as to encourage people to stay put and shelter-in-place, wherever they found themselves.
Running for freedom and yet faced with dejection, some of the Lombardy escapees of those chaotic, early days shared their epiphany, saying how they felt like refugees, how they finally understood how dehumanizing this experience could be. It was a bittersweet irony, very much belated, coming from a country whose policies had allowed tens of thousands of migrants to drown on its Mediterranean shores.
The 1920s and 1930s were notoriously rife with turmoil too. As long as you had a beating heart, you could have very well been a refugee. Against the backdrop of rifting social and political changes an exodus was sweeping across Europe and beyond. Between the Nazis’ rise to power in Germany, the fascists taking over in Italy, the Ottoman Empire’s genocides culminating with the extermination of 1.5 million Armenians, and the aftermath of Lenin’s Bolshevik revolution and the Civil War in Russia, millions of people were fleeing their home countries long before World War II had even started.
Painted around that time, in 1930 — a year before Thomas Cooper Gotch’s death — The Exile is shrouded in mystery. As of now, we know nothing about the identity of the sitter or about the suggestive, tantalizing title of her portrait. We could speculate endlessly. Could the young woman be a bourgeois Russian fleeing persecution? A fortunate Armenian using her connections to escape genocide? The daughter of a Greek sailor who, along with her lover, left the Anatolian peninsula and settled in England?
I won’t lie, I was disappointed and frustrated when I couldn’t unearth any new details about this painting. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that her mysterious identity — whether real or allegorical — has this universal quality about it, for she gives face to the suffering of amorphous masses of people. And yes, it’s true that displacement oftentimes requires extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime circumstances, but its corollary — the need for belonging — couldn’t be more ordinary. It is present in all of us, from our first breath to our last.
Note: If there are any paintings you’d like to know more about, please let me know. My research has been in a rut lately, as my findings unearth tragedies even beneath otherwise seemingly neutral canvases. It looks as if no artwork comes without its cost of suffering or without being inextricably linked to the weightiness of human existence. With that being said, a change of perspective (perhaps in subject matter, style or epoch) would be most welcome.